What To Do If You Think You Have A Genital Wart

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
Noticing any new bump, abrasion, or wart on your genitals is enough to send most of us into a frantic Google image tailspin. While it can feel stressful at first to discover a genital wart, it's not the end of the world. Once you go to a doctor to suss out what's happening and what you need to do to get rid of it, you'll feel much more at ease.
Genital warts appear when someone is infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), explains Ana G. Cepin, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. "HPV has multiple strains, and some different strains do different things," she says. A few of these strains can lead to genital warts.
The good news is that the HPV vaccine can protect against the types of HPV associated with genital warts (and also cervical cancers), Dr. Cepin says. So, the vaccine is an important first line of defense. If you do end up with a genital wart, your doctor can help you sort through available treatment options to help manage and prevent future breakouts.
That said, if you are bugging out and don't know what to do first, Dr. Cepin explains a step-by-step plan ahead.
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Take a good look at your bumps.

Genital warts do have a "classic appearance," meaning most present in a similar way, but they can look different, Dr. Cepin says. In most cases, genital warts look like little bumps that have a cauliflower-like appearance, she says. Sometimes, people think they have a genital wart, but it just ends up being an ingrown hair, a cyst in a gland-producing cell, or something else, she says. "That's why it's important to come in, because it can be a lot of different things."

Genital warts can show up anywhere in the genital area. For someone with a vagina, this means the vulva, vagina, cervix, and anal area, Dr. Cepin says. For people with penises, they tend to show up on the penis, around the base of the shaft, and surrounding the anal area. "We can usually make a diagnosis just by looking, but sometimes we can be fooled and it can look a little different," she says. "If were not sure we can do a biopsy."
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Head to a doctor.

While a wart on your foot or hand would be treated by a dermatologist, genital warts are a different story. It's important to see your Ob/Gyn (or if you're someone with a penis, your primary care physician), so they can properly examine you, Dr. Cepin says. "If you have a wart, we want to do an internal exam with a speculum to make sure there aren't any warts anywhere else," she says. "A dermatologist wouldn't be the person for that." An Ob/Gyn can also provide important information about safer sex protocols you should take to prevent them from spreading. If you're not sure where to go, you can look up a Planned Parenthood health center, where you can talk through your options with a medical professional.
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Explore treatment options.

If you do in fact have a genital wart, technically you don't have to get it removed, and some will go away on their own, Dr. Cepin says. "Most people choose to have them removed because it's uncomfortable to have a growth," she says. However, if you do have even one genital wart, you're more likely to transmit the infection to a partner or get more warts on yourself. So, most doctors recommend treating and removing them, she says.

The most common treatment for genital warts is an acid that gynecologists apply to the wart to destroy it, Dr. Cepin says. "It usually requires several treatments, so we have patients come in on a weekly basis until they go away," she says. That may sound painful, but according to Planned Parenthood, doctors usually administer a numbing treatment beforehand. There's also a cryotherapy treatment that can freeze them off, too. In some cases, doctors may prescribe a medication that you can apply to the area to "help your body fight off the infection, so that you can clear it on your own," she says.

Once treatment is over, you're less likely to transmit the infection, but your risk doesn't go down to zero, Dr. Cepin says. "Even if you have no visible lesions, the virus may linger there, and you may still be infectious," she says. In fact, the infection could remain for six to 12 months after warts are removed.
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Talk to your partner(s).

Although it may feel uncomfortable, it's a very good idea to let all your sexual partners know that you've been diagnosed with genital warts, so they can be seen by a doctor as well, Dr. Cepin says. "There's no test per se — no blood test, swab test — but we would recommend having the person go in for an inspection to make sure there's no visible lesions," she says.

As for your current partners, you'll need to take some extra precautions. Using condoms or dental dams whenever you have sex will help minimize the risk of transmission, but again, it's not 100% effective, Dr. Cepin says. At the end of the day, taking precautions to have safer sex is one of the few tangible things you can do to decrease your risk. So, try not to worry: the warts and your stress will soon pass.

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